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30 August 2020

The sweetest Heresy received

 The sweetest Heresy received
That Man and Woman know –
Each Other's Convert –
Though the Faith accommodate but Two –

The Churches are so frequent –
The Ritual – so small –
The Grace so unavoidable –
To fail – is Infidel –
                                                            Fr671 (1863)  J387

I've read a few takes on this poem and really there are but two. The first is that Dickinson is playfully portraying a good marriage. Two people convert to each other and are so in love that nothing seems left for Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Heresy, maybe, but sweet.
        Their services and rituals together are so simple and easy that Grace between them in unavoidable. It would be a real act of denial to fail in the simple gestures of marriage. With 'Infidel', Dickinson cleverly implies that failing in such accommodations is not only another bit of heresy but one akin to infidelity.
Probably an illustration form an Austen book

Ah, but reading number two is much more fun. We're talking about marital bliss. The poem becomes clever rather than anodyne. The frequent 'Churches' suggest an alternative form of worship; the 'Ritual' is 'small' – nothing difficult or disagreeable here. Best of all, the resulting 'Grace' is 'unavoidable'. Marital bliss indeed. Only an 'infidel', a denier, would fail to achieve this Grace when the churches are so frequent and the ritual so small.

The poem is generally unremarkable. There is an odd line break in the first stanza: the third line is truncated, meter-wise, in favor of giving the last line a couple of extra feet. It makes poetic sense, however, delivering a sort of punch line.

I have to admit to enjoying "The Churches are so frequent" – as a bit of delicious naughtiness. And I like the way "To fail– is Infidel –" sounds.


  1. This poem following, "There is One Crucifixion recorded only" makes for two heretical poems in a row.

    The idea in this poem, of romantic love conflated with religion, can be seen in a number of ED's poems and letters. "Congregation" in ED often means two things at once. I just started reading the amazing collection of letters from ED to her friend and sister-in-law Susan in "Open Me Carefully". In one early letter to Austin, the book notes, ED says she hopes Austin has "enjoyed" "sanctuary privileges" with Susan. Then later when she is writing to Susan she writes, "How vain it seems to write, when one knows how to feel -- how much more near and dear to sit beside you, talk with you, hear the tones of your voice -- so hard to "deny thyself, and take up they cross and follow me --" give me strength, Susie, write me of hope and love, and of hearts that endured, and great was their reward of "Our Father who art in Heaven."

    Those letters were written over 10 years before this poem was written, so this particular "heresy" had been fomenting in the poet for awhile by the time this poem comes around.

    This one is notable for the idea of making someone a convert to the religion of yourself, even while they are making you a convert to the religion of them. That's an intriguing and romantic idea.

    I also love all that is implied in "The Grace so unavoidable/ to fail is infidel". And yet, how many of us do? The Grace is unavoidable!

    Ha. As long as we go "to church" regularly and keep up our small rituals we can keep the faith this poem implies.

  2. Letter L73, "How vain it seems to write, when one knows how to feel" is dated about 6 February 1852, while Sue was teaching math in Baltimore.

    On her return rail trip from Manchester, NH, on Wednesday, March 23, 1853, Susan arrived in Boston for a tryst with Austin at the Revere Hotel, and the couple became engaged. ED learned of the engagement within 2-3 days because the “sanctuary privileges” letter, L110, is dated March 27, 1853.

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  4. ‘The sweetest Heresy received’ (F671) simultaneously wishes and chides. Both of ED’s closest love relationships, Sue Gilbert and Charles Wadsworth, began in her imaginative mind as a sacred promise between two people to love each other on Earth, and, in Wadsworth’s case, especially in Heaven. In her perfect dyad the two become “Each Other’s Convert –” in a private “Faith [that] accommodate[s] but Two –”. Such holy dyads are so frequent, such sacred ceremonies so simple, such perfect happiness so “unavoidable” that “To fail – is Infidel”!

    Of course, each dyad ended painfully for ED, and her final line chides each partner sarcastically. Nevertheless, being the person and poet she was, she remained faithful to each her entire life, writing poems for Sue and wearing only white for Wadsworth.